September 14, READING, Pa. (AP) — Barry Hoch stood close to the cage, holding a bunch of green grapes with one hand and poking a piece of the fruit through the chain links with the other.
The bear stuck out its tongue, greedily accepted the food, and grunted for more.
“Here you go. Here you go,” the 65-year-old Hoch cooed to the hulking mammal.
For Hoch, it’s just an everyday task. He and his wife, Barbara, have kept Jakie, a 350-pound female American black bear, in their Earl Township backyard for 25 years.
Earl Township has no ordinance prohibiting residents from owning exotic pets such as Jakie. And under state law, it’s perfectly legal to own bears, lions, tigers and the like as long as the owner obtains a permit from the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
But that may soon change if a Senate bill introduced in March wins support in the state Legislature.
If passed, the bill would prohibit private ownership of exotic wildlife, including bears, big cats, primates and other potentially dangerous animals. People who already have such pets would be allowed to keep them, as long as they have a permit.
A similar bill in 2012 never made it to the Senate floor, said state Sen. Judy Schwank, a co-sponsor of the current bill.
“I think it’s cruel to house wild animals,” said Schwank, a Ruscombmanor Township Democrat. “They are just not suited for living in confinement in a nonprofessional situation. This is why zoos were invented.”
Schwank said this piece of legislation will likely make it through committee, but whether it’ll be voted on by the end of this year’s session is anyone’s guess.
Nicole Paquette, vice president of wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States, said such a law has been a long time coming for Pennsylvania.
“These animals need specific care and treatment that the average person cannot provide,” she said. “These animals don’t belong in people’s basements, backyards.”
Thirty-three states have more stringent laws regarding ownership of exotic pets than Pennsylvania, Paquette said.
That’s not to say Pennsylvania hasn’t made changes over the years. The Game Commission’s wildlife-possession permit system has become more stringent since it was instituted in the 1980s.
When the Hochs applied for a permit, they were told to build a cage large enough for the bear to comfortably live in – 12 feet high, 12 feet wide and 25 feet long. The cage is also required to have a bathtub for fresh water and an igloo-like brick structure in which Jakie hibernates during the winter.
Neither of the Hochs had ever worked at a zoo or an animal clinic before owning a bear, but Barry said he felt confident in his abilities to care for a bear, since he grew up on an Oley Township farm with many animals.
Jakie was just 9 weeks old and 5 pounds when they adopted her from breeders at the Lake Tobias Wildlife Park in Halifax, Dauphin County.
The Game Commission now requires applicants to provide proof of at least two years experience handling wildlife of the same species before receiving a permit.
But there is still no stipulation that the permit holder must notify neighbors, local law enforcement or schools that the animal lives nearby, according to the Humane Society.
NEIGHBORS NOT BOTHERED
Earl Township supervisor John Hetrick said he’s aware of the Hochs’ pet bear and that as far as he knows, there have been no issues associated with the animal.
Neighbors Bob and Kay Wouse said they’ve never feared the furry creature next door.
“She’s my buddy,” Bob Wouse said. “I take watermelon to her, just about every day.”
But owning the bear hasn’t been an entirely unblemished experience for the Hochs.
While the bear has never hurt a visitor, Barry said, she’s shown some signs of aggression.
From time to time, Barry will place a toy in the cage. The latest was a metal pole, which Jakie ripped out of the ground within a few days.
And as Jakie has aged, she’s become increasingly combative. She doesn’t like small children and becomes noticeably irritable when they approach the cage, gnashing her fangs and charging about her enclosure.
The bear once ripped a vein out of Barry Hoch’s arm when he was cleaning the cage and wouldn’t play with her. He has a faint scar from the ordeal, which resulted in a few stitches.
“We tolerate each other,” he said. “That’s the best way to put it.”
REASON FOR CONCERN
In some cases, ownership of exotic animals in Pennsylvania has resulted in death.
Kelly Ann Walz of Allegheny County was attacked and killed in 2009 by her pet black bear, which was about Jakie’s size and weight, while she was cleaning its cage.
The bear attack spurred state lawmakers to investigate possible flaws of the exotic wildlife permit system, resulting in the 2012 legislation.
Schwank said the new bill is particularly important for Berks County, a heavily agricultural area. Exotic animals can carry zoonotic diseases such as Herpes B, monkeysox, and salmonellosis, which can be spread to other livestock.
“The threat of disease is one that shouldn’t be taken lightly,” Schwank said.
When asked if he supports the legislation, Barry Hoch reflected on the past years with Jakie.
“It’s taking rights away from people, but I can understand this,” he said. “You’re committed for life when you get an animal like this.”
His wife agreed.
“The people nowadays don’t take care of anything,” Barbara said. “So just like with the snakes and alligators they get how many of them get tired of them? Why are they all loose and running around? Cause they let them go.”